Designer for Hire


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There’s a leafy, sweet-smelling secret down in the heart of Tucson, one that has turned a blight on the landscape into something pretty special, and in doing so has inspired and re-shaped a whole community.

Art by BICAS at Dunbar Spring

George Olivier

George Olivier, a daily visitor to the garden. Photo by Gillian Drummond

George Olivier rolls another cigarette and grins, drinking in his surroundings. He’s glad to be back in Tucson after many years away, up in Minnesota, running a hotel. He returned in 1998 minus the wife he had met here, whom he lost to cancer and diabetes.

A Vietnam vet, former U.S. Navy member, and with a background in restaurants and hospitality, he has many tales to tell. But most of the time it’s just him – “me, myself, I” – sitting in Dunbar/Spring community garden, which he visits daily. Of his own accord, he cleans the common areas, picking up any trash that’s left here.

“It’s quiet. I bring my radio and I just reminisce and watch the birds,” says George. He points to a place on a ramada roof where a hawk pays regular visits, scaring off the pigeons.

Dunbar/Spring community garden just north of Tucson’s downtown was dreamed up in 1995 and born in 1998. A trio of organizations, including Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood Association, bought the land – a former school then deserted building and parking lot – for just $25.

Dunbar Spring garden sign

Everyone’s welcome at the garden. Photo by Gillian Drummond

And now? It’s 20 garden plots – 80% of them in use – along with organic native plantings, orchards, a play area, two ramadas, and art. Art on walls (a mural depicting the land’s history), art on gates (thanks to the recycled bicycle art effort that is BICAS), and art in the individual plots too.


Dunbar Spring garden wall mural

Dunbar Spring garden wall mural. Photo by Gillian Drummond.

Brad Lancaster. Photo by Gillian Drummond

It’s a gathering spot, a picnic spot, a place for after-school clubs, even a sometime wedding venue. Chi Lancaster has had a plot here for 10 years and was wed here. She holds an Easter egg hunt here every year for her friends, and it’s always the venue for her son’s birthday party every May.

The garden is also a lesson in water re-use. Plantings are sunken and pathways are raised to encourage rainwater run-off and natural irrigation.

It’s no coincidence that one of Dunbar/Spring’s residents is Brad Lancaster, nationally renowned permaculture and rainwater harvesting expert (and brother-in-law of Chi). “[Residents] get to live in a community, not just a housing division of strangers. They’re able to make visible and positive change. It’s not just about physical infrastructure, it’s interpersonal,” says Brad, who founded the garden and much more besides.

Dunbar Spring traffic circle

A traffic circle with native plantings in the Dunbar Spring neighborhood. Photo by Gillian Drummond.

Thanks to several grants, from the likes of PRO Neighborhoods, the Arizona State Land Department, and Pima County, residents have this garden and they have a shade tree planting project, where the land is contoured to encourage rainwater run-off toward the trees and plantings. They also have traffic calming solutions by way of traffic circles and pull-outs, or chicanes, filled with rocks and native plantings. These narrow the roads, which automatically slows traffic, and they allow more space for flood control, shade trees and storm water filtering, says Brad.

There’s an annual Mesquite Fiesta (we’ll feature that next month) to harvest and mill mesquite pods. And the neighborhood just launched a project called Chipped and Mulchy. A few weeks before  the Brush and Bulky pick-up, residents can have a chipping machine cut up yard trimmings for use as mulch.

“Normally I put my trimmings in the trash. This time, they went back underneath my trees,” says Natasha Winnik, owner of natural buildings materials showroom Originate, who lives and works in the neighborhood.

Kaitlin Meadows’ plot at Dunbar Spring

For artist Kaitlin Meadows, renting a plot in the garden has meant more than harvests of herbs, cucumbers, squash and peppers. Her 40 sq ft plot (they start at $8 a month) is under the shade of a pomegranate tree. A resident of Tucson’s west side, she has her art studio just across the street. So she views her plot as a gateway to integrating with the community. “There’s a lot of sharing of techniques, of what things have gone well in the garden, and of tools,” says Kaitlin, who plants “intensely” with lots of native flowers that will attract bees.

On an October day, as the temperatures are starting to dip nicely, George is having a quieter time than usual. The battery in his radio ran out.  But that’s OK, he says; he’s retired and doesn’t have a lot else going on in his day. “Nobody bothers me and I don’t bother them. This place gives me peace of mind.”

* Join in the garden’s pre-Fiesta clean-up party on Saturday November 4,  8 am to 12 noon on the NW corner of 11th Ave and University Blvd. The 10th Annual Mesquite Milling Fiesta takes place November 18.

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